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Community agreement with US Bank

After a year and a half of organizing, the Coalition for Community Banking has won a community benefits award with U.S. Bank which addresses banking and credit needs on the West Side and western suburbs.

Coalition leaders and bank officials will discuss the agreement tomorrow, Friday March 4, 10 a.m., at U.S. Bank’s office at 11 W. Madison in Oak Park.  Joining them will be U.S. Representative Danny Davis and Oak Park village president David Pope.

The coalition was formed in October 2009 after the FDIC closed the community-based Park National Bank and turned it over to U.S. Bank, the sixth largest bank in the nation. Community leaders had travelled to Washington D.C. to oppose the FDIC action.

The agreement will cover enhanced banking services and reinvestment in the area, along with a commitment to maintain PNB’s support for local schools and nonprofits.  .

The coalition pushed for public reporting on U.S. Bank’s lending to areas previously served by PNB, additional access to credit for small businesses, and increased efforts on financial education and foreclosure prevention.

The bank has committed to working with local housing agencies to prevent foreclosures and restore foreclosed properties, said Rev. Marshall Hatch, a coalition leader. Tomorrow’s event will include a tour of several foreclosed homes that will be renovated under the agreement.

“We’re proud of the way the coalition came together, people from the West Side and from Oak Park, River Forest and Maywood, blacks and whites, people from different income levels,” said Hatch. “It shows what can be accomplished when people work together on behalf of the community.

“That’s the legacy of Park National Bank,” he said.

A sudden demolition

After a West Side activist group announced plans to take over and board up a building abandoned following foreclosure, the city moved within hours to have the building demolished, said Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition.

“They got wind of what we were going to do and decided to preempt our action,” Redmond said.

SAC still plans to hold an action tomorrow at the site, now a pile of rubble – pointing out that there are eleven more abandoned, bank-owned properties on the same block (Friday, January 28, 11 a.m., 4924 W. Gladys).

“Tearing this building down is not the answer,” Redmond said.  “The city should be working with the community and banks to ensure homes are rehabbed and families are moved in.”

The building made TV last week when mayoral candidate Miguel del Valle joined SAC in a press conference there.

The home was fully habitable, Redmond said, and fell into extreme disrepair only after it was foreclosed on – which was nearly three years ago. Progress Illinois recently described it as an “absolute wreck,” with a back door flapping open, broken windows, metal and wiring stripped, and debris including liquor bottles and plastic baggies indicating a haven for drug use (see PI’s photos at Flickr).

PI also traced the tortuous trail of ownership of the building’s mortgage, from First Franklin to Merrill Lynch to Bank of America to an outfit in Florida.

The other abandoned homes on the block are “good solid structures and they can be saved,” Redmond said.  “The problem is if they’re just going to tear these buildings down and create empty lots, that’s not beneficial to the community” — especially “large numbers of people who can’t find housing.”

Loan servicers walking away

A recent report by the Woodstock Institute found the foreclosure crisis has left thousands of vacant homes that are poorly maintained, lack clear ownership, and threaten neighborhood stability.  Loan servicers “may choose to reduce the costs associated with a long-term vacant home by walking away from the foreclosure process instead of completing it or may avoid maintaining a vacant home,” according to the report.

Examining city data, Woodstock identified thousands of homes where foreclosure has been filed but not concluded – raising concerns that servicers have abandoned the process – or where it’s likely lenders have taken possession but not registered as required.

Woodstock estimated that the abandoned homes could cost the city as much as $36 million for legal, security, police, and demolition expenses.

Update languishes

But a proposal to update the city’s vacant properties ordinance to deal with the crisis has languished in the City Council, said Braden Listmann of Action Now.

The current ordinance requires registration and board-up but applies to the owner of the property, leaving a large gap during a drawn-out foreclosure process, Listmann said.  And fines and fees can be difficult to collect, he added.

An ordinance introduced by Ald. Pat Dowell at the request of Action Now and other groups would hold a servicer or lender who files foreclosure responsible for registering, securing the building, and posting a $10,000 bond which could be tapped for fines and fees.

To aid enforcement, it would also provide a 5 percent finders fee on any fines for residents who report an abandoned property and do the research to determine its owner.

The ordinance was introduced in July and remains stalled in the council’s housing committee.

Also stalled is the Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, which would tap TIF funds to rehab foreclosed properties as affordable housing.

“These are two measures that would help the foreclosure crisis, and the City Council needs to move on them,” Listmann said.  “They would help the city, the state, our communities, the economy – they would make sure buildings aren’t falling apart and provide money to reoccupy them.”

COFI: A win on recess, and more

Parents who’ve been pushing for several years to restore recess in Chicago schools won a victory in Springfield last week when the General Assembly voted to establish a legislative task force on the issue.

Members of POWER-PAC, a citywide organization of black and Latino mothers, have worked in Springfield for four years for Recess For All, coming closest two years ago when the House and Senate passed a bill mandating recess in Illinois schools but failed to agree on final language.

Some 82 percent of Chicago elementary schools do not provide recess for their students, said Tracy Occomy of Community Organizing Family Issues, which provides training and support for POWER-PAC.  Those allowing recess tend to be magnet schools and schools serving higher-income children, she said.

Occomy said that a statewide search failed to identify any other school district beside CPS that doesn’t provide recess.

The push for recess grew out of POWER-PAC’s work to reduce “alarming rates” of suspensions in elementary schools.  They cited research showing children who are allowed to have recess act out less and learn better. In 2005 Newstips reported on a meeting between POWER-PAC and then-school board president Michael Scott, who abruptly walked out when parents started talking about the need for recess.

Since then a growing concern over childhood obesity has added to the concern.

Childhood obesity in Chicago is significantly higher than the national average, according to the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, and higher yet in communities of color, where recess is rarely available.  In Englewood, childhood obesity rates are twice the national average, according to CLOCC.

The new task force will include representatives of parent, health, and restorative justice groups, in addition to legislators, CPS, teachers unions, principals and the PTA.  The goal is to reach consensus on overcoming obstacles to recess and make recommendations for legislation in the next General Assembly, Occomy said.

It’s the latest victory for COFI, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last week.  The group uses traditional community organizing approaches but focuses on mothers in low-income communities of color.   Working with local community groups and social service agencies, COFI trains parent action teams which choose their own issues.

Currently parent action teams are working on a variety of issues in West Town, Humboldt Park, Austin, North Lawndale and Englewood.

On restorative justice, POWER-PAC members founded the Austin Peace Center five years ago to implement restorative justice in two West Side elementary schools.  Working with a citywide coalition, POWER-PAC pushed CPS to drop its zero tolerance policy and recognize restorative justice in its disciplinary code in 2007.  They’re also training parents in restorative justice at Reavis Elementary in Bronzeville. (More here.)

POWER-PAC has also led a citywide push to improve participation in early learning, training mothers in childcare centers to serve as Head Start Ambassadors and forming walking preschool buses in several communities.

The Austin-Wide Parent Network has worked on community health issues – including an exercise program for mothers – and parent teams in Englewood have hosted bike and walk to school rallies and won playlots at two elementary schools in the past two years.

Bank of America: #1 in foreclosures

Bank of America has objected that a new lawsuit by the Illinois attorney general – charging that the bank’s subsidiary, Countrywide Financial Corp., discriminated by steering minority homebuyers into risky subprime loans – covers practices prior to BoA’s takeover of Countrywide in 2008.

But those same borrowers could be facing foreclosure at BoA’s hands today, according to a new report from National People’s Action.

The network of community organizations found that Bank of America is “Chicago’s biggest forecloser and among the top owners of foreclosed properties” which lead to declining property values and increased debt for struggling homeowners.

Bank of America was responsible for 4,000 home foreclosure filings in Chicago in 2009, representing 17 percent of total filings in the city, according to the report.  The bank is on track to issue over 3,000 additional home foreclosures this year, NPA says.

According to the report, BoA, the largest service of loans in foreclosure in the nation, had over 1 million loans eligible for modification in the Home Affordable Modification Program, but offered permanent loan mods to less than 70,000 of those lenders – a mere 5.2 percent.

“Bank of America is bad for American neighborhoods,” said Theresa Welch of the South Austin Coalition in a release.  The Bank “controls the fate of more mortgages and homeowners than any other single company in America” and “therefore has a unique responsibility to deal aggressively with the foreclosure crisis.

“Bank of America must do a better job stemming foreclosures and help put an end to the devastation foreclosures are causing in local communities and on the nation’s economy.”

In Chicago, under pressure from community groups, Bank of America agreed to a pilot program with the Southwest Organizing Project and the Greater Southwest Development Corporation last year. The bank is cooperating on outreach to troubled homeowners and assistance with filling loan modification requests.

Though community groups are still awaiting results, the effort represents the kind of engagement BoA needs to undertake around the country, said Gordon Mayer of NPA. [Mayer is the former vice president of Community Media Workshop.]

SWOP is still waiting to see if the bank will make permanent the loan modifications that have resulted from the pilot, said David McDowell.  “It’s still moving forward, but it’s a long process,” he said.

“Our goal has been for Bank of America and other banks to become more proactive” in addressing the foreclosure crisis, he said.  He noted that Bank of America is the bank with the most foreclosures in SWOP’s area.

Stopping dog fights; adopting kittens

Martial arts champion (and animal lover) Andre “The Pit Bull” Arlovski will speak to Englewood students tomorrow – and the Humane Society‘s Pit Bull Training Team will give a performance – as  part of a growing campaign against violence and dog fighting.

The presentations take place at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday, June 10) at Team Englewood High School, 6201 S. Stewart, according to the Anti-Cruelty Society, which is cosponsoring the event.

The pit bull team gives weekly trainings at sites in Austin and Englewood for dogs and their owners, including individuals and pets who have been involved in dog fighting.  Some graduates become anti-dogfighting advocates who recruit students, give presentations in schools, and break up fights.

The goal is “to completely change the culture of pit bull ownership in this community,” says trainer Jeff Jenkins in a short Humane Society video.  (And in another short video, watch 13-year-old Terrence Murphy, with his dog Elmo, talk about the program.)

The Humane Society estimates that 250,000 dogs die in dog fights each year in the United States.

For more on the pit bull training team, see reports in Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Defender, and Jenkins’ blog on last summer’s training.


In other ACS news, it’s “kitten season,” with an annual warm-weather increase in kitten litters and in kittens left at the society’s shelter at 157 W. Grand.  Through August 31, people adopting two cats will have the adoption fee for one of them waived.  It’s not limited to a single home – two friends can each adopt and split one fee.

West Siders to meet with U.S. Bank

A town hall meeting on community banking with representatives of U.S. Bank has been called tonight by an activist group that is monitoring the bank’s takeover last year of Oak Park-based Park National Bank.

The Coalition to Save Community Banking is sponsoring the town hall at 6:30 p.m. tonight (Tuesday, June 8 ) at Hope Community Church, 5900 W. Iowa.

The coalition is looking for answers to its call for stepped-up foreclosure prevention and community investment efforts by U.S. bank, said Jackie Leavy.

As Newstips reported in May, the coalition has raised concerns about elimination of community development staff on the West Side and western suburbs since the PNB takeover, and has been pressing for funding for foreclosure counseling and a community stabilization fund.

With nearly 2,000 foreclosure filings in Chicago last year, U.S. Bank ranked third among financial institutions for filings in the area; in the first four months of this year, the bank filed or completed 1,000 foreclosures.

Town hall on Austin High

The Austin Community Education Network, which is focused on building a new, comprehensive Austin High School (see last month’s Newstip), is holding a town hall meeting with elected officials this Saturday, August 22, at 10 a.m. at the Austin Public Library, 5615 W. Race.  Info at 773-378-1878.

Hundreds of Austin residents rallied for a new high school on July 14, according to ACEN, and the group has had large contingents in the Bud Billiken Parade and Congressman Dany K. Davis’sWest Side parade this month. 

New push for Austin high school

With the city-backed warehouse development planned for the site of the old Brach plant in Austin stalled by the economy, the Austin Community Education Network is renewing its push to build a comprehensive high school on the site.

Parents, students, clergy and community organizations joined by local artists will hold a rally at the site, 4800 W. Chicago, on Tuesday, July 14 at 5:30 p.m.

It’s the only site with room for a state-of-the-art high school in Austin, which has the largest gap between the number of students and the number of seats in high-performing schools, the group maintains.

It’s now one year since the City Council rejected community pleas and approved a $10.6 million TIF subsidy for a suburban developer to build a warehouse and distribution center on the site.

But a deal to finance the project fell apart following last year’s economic downturn, said Virgil Crawford of the Westside Health Authority. The developer’s TIF agreement with the city requires that financing be in place by May of 2010, he said.

“We see this as a window of opportunity to reconsider the use of the site, to use it for the public good and the benefit of the community and thousands of students,” Crawford said. The group has a commitment from a local bank to purchase the property from the developer and donate it to CPS for a new school, he said. “So if the developer is having trouble getting financing, this could be the answer.”

ACEN has called for a state-of-the-art high school and innovation center with cultural and athletic facilities, along with an “innovation center” providing training in green jobs, to be built on the 27-acre site which formerly housed a candy manufacturing plant.

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